"Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition"

February 2012

Lady and the TrampAn Entertaining, Family-Oriented Demonstration-Calibre Disc

Disney Blu-ray 108140
Format: Blu-ray and DVD

 Overall Enjoyment 
****1/2
 Picture Quality 
*****
 Sound Quality 
****
 Extras 
****

Lady and the Tramp, Walt Disney's homage to canine friends and a time gone by, actually started with some thoughts in the late '30s and went through many reworkings before its CinemaScope release in 1955. The history of the movie's development unfolds in the very interesting "Classic DVD Bonus Features," which are included on this Blu-ray/DVD set. (I reviewed the two-disc package, but there's also a three-disc set that includes a digital copy.) The master animators and score composer Oliver Wallace made the film breathe the last days of the horse and buggy in Middle America, while Peggy Lee's saucy songs and performances made the movie zing for contemporary audiences. The story appeals to both adults and children, as it flawlessly walks a narrow line in portraying death, pregnancy, and a night of passion. Those ideas might fly over the heads of youngsters, but they'll resonate with older viewers.

We all expect great things from a Disney Blu-ray Diamond Edition, and this one doesn't disappoint. Its picture is perfect. Colors pop, backgrounds have texture and detail not readily visible with DVD editions, the print is undamaged and free of artifacts, and the contrast is spot on for both day and nighttime scenes. The soundtrack is presented in both 7.1 and the original 3.0 version, and both sound better than any past presentation of this movie. The iconic spaghetti scene between Tramp and Lady looks and sounds so wonderful that you'll fall in love with it all over again.

Lady and the Tramp's animation is so smooth and fluid that parents could show it to children as a new film and they might not be any the wiser. They might even have a hard time believing that the whole thing was done without a computer. I find it thoroughly amazing myself.

There are some new extras for the Blu-ray, including a trio of deleted scenes. One of these is from a much earlier time when Lady was supposed to have two neighboring dogs vying for her attention, one a snobbish Russian wolfhound named Boris. Another scene is somewhat bizarre. Tramp cajoles Lady into a vaudeville show starring trained dogs, and Lady gets stuck on the stage with a Parisian chorus line of poodles doing the can-can. The creators were surely right to throw this scene out. It would have been totally jarring within the film, but it's fascinating as an extra. None of the deleted scenes are available in motion; they're all displayed with character and storyboard drawings and accompanied by suitable music and narration.

Lady and the Tramp is a timeless film, especially in this Blu-ray edition, which presents it in an immaculate transfer and augments it with some excellent extras that offer an entertaining exploration of the movie's history.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 4, in which we meet Tramp, is exceptionally evocative. Tramp is sleeping inside a turned-over barrel, and as he wakes, he yawns and stretches just like a real dog. It looks like it feels so darned satisfying that we can't help feeling good about it. Without a single word of dialogue, Tramp's good-natured, carefree character is established.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Real Steel"

January 2012

Real SteelRedemption Through HD Robot Boxing

Touchstone Home Entertainment 109012
Format: Blu-ray and DVD

 Overall Enjoyment 
****
 Picture Quality 
****1/2
 Sound Quality 
****1/2
 Extras 
***1/2

I wandered into this movie quite by accident. Our power went off in an unusual October snowstorm, so to keep from going nuts I headed for the mall theaters in the next town. When I got there, the only movie that was about to start was Real Steel, so I bought a ticket. I didn't regret it. This film has received a lot of bad press -- some reviews have been downright vitriolic -- but it's actually a great little film in the Disney tradition. Perhaps other critics expected something else, but Real Steel is at its heart a film about redemption and a father bonding with a son he abandoned.

That father is Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), a former middleweight boxing contender. Charlie's career peaked just when boxing was dying due to the rise of robot boxing, which could be more brutal and could better satisfy a crowd. Charlie has become a robot wrangler, trucking his rusted 'bot around to county fairs in the hope of winning a few bucks. At the beginning of the summer season, he finds that his ex-wife has passed away and the courts need to decide the custody of his son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie agrees to turn the boy over to his aunt and her rich sugar-daddy husband, but he has to take care of the boy for the summer.

At first suspicious of each other, the two begin to bond when Max finds an old robot, polishes him up, and enters him in fights. They start to win, and before long they're looking at championship bouts. Jackman and Goyo have terrific chemistry, so the bonding seems entirely natural, maybe inevitable. Yes, the story is sweet, but I didn't find it saccharine and the dramatic robot fights certainly add spice. The filmmakers actually constructed animatronic robots, so much of what you see is puppet manipulation, not CGI. The technique is effective, and it makes the whole idea of robot boxing quite believable.

For the most part, the images are state of the art. Skin tones are accurate and colors are lively without being overdone, while the contrast is close to perfect and shadow detail is abundant. The metallic robot textures are well represented, as are the softer details like the texture of clothing. The soundtrack is both lively and immersive. The rear channels are going most of the time, and in the boxing scenes the crowd seems to be all around the viewer. The music has real heft, yet the overall mix remains transparent and clear.

Extras include a director's commentary from Shawn Levy and a feature called "Second Screen," which lets you synchronize your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to the movie and receive extra information as you play it. I'm not a fan of the concept, as I find it confusing to have to look at two places. For my money, picture-in-picture is better on one screen, and the Blu-ray of the first Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie nails this method. In addition to "Second Screen," there are a couple of weak featurettes and an amusing short showing how Sugar Ray Leonard trained Jackman to look like a real boxer.

Despite what other critics may say, Real Steel is a great little movie. Discover it as I did, without expectation, and you're sure to have a good time.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 6 takes place in Metal Valley, a junkyard that's home to thousands of spare parts. Shadow detail is very impressive as locations momentarily light up with flashes of lightning, and the storm sounds envelop you until the rain falls all around you. Overall, it's a demonstration-caliber scene.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Godzilla"

January 2012

GodzillaGodzilla Still Rocks -- This Time on Blu-ray

The Criterion Collection 594
Format: Blu-ray

 Overall Enjoyment 
****
 Picture Quality 
***1/2
 Sound Quality 
***
 Extras 
****

Godzilla! Mention of the name instantly conjures a huge dinosaur-like monster with bumpy dorsal fins and an overweight yet powerful physique. He's become one of the most iconic figures in pop culture, synonymous with Japan and with size. Any time someone wants to breathe a vision of gigantic into their product or service, they can merely add "zilla," and the connotation is clear.

Godzilla starred in around 28 features for Toho Studios. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he's available as a plush doll in any Japanese gift shop worth its salt. After several sequels as a bad guy, he became a Japanese hero the people would call upon when another monster threatened. Godzilla would protect and fight for Japanese citizens in an almost endless number of Godzilla vs. movies. In 1962 he was even pitted against King Kong, one of the inspirations for his creation in the first place.

This handsome and downright enjoyable Criterion edition showcases the first 1954 black-and-white Godzilla, as well as its reworking into the 1956 English-language version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! The latter jettisoned original scenes and replaced them with sequences starring Raymond Burr, who -- hold on to your hats -- was dating Natalie Wood at the time. This is explained, along with almost everything else you'd want to know about Godzilla and its stars, in a breathlessly energetic commentary by film historian David Kalat, who has made Toho and Godzilla studies his specialty. Kalat's commentary accompanies both the Japanese and American versions.

The overall tone of Criterion's edition strives to thoroughly examine the movie as a metaphor for Japan's fear of nearby H-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the early 1950s, the first intense era of the Cold War. Having survived two disastrous atomic bombs during World War II, the Japanese were nervous about any further nuclear experiences, and Godzilla gave them a fictional escape in a monster created by atomic- and hydrogen-bomb experiments. The American and Japanese versions handle this concept very differently from one another, and the factually rich commentary fully explains the differences.

Criterion's transfer looks great some of the time, and when it doesn't the fault lies with the original film stock or the fact that some scenes were spliced-in documentary footage, thanks mostly to Japan's coast guard. But it certainly looks better than I've ever seen it. The original Japanese movie gets the best run and is more devoid of print noise than the American one. The sound is mono, of course, but it's been sufficiently cleaned up and it's quite impressive at times. Godzilla's roar, sounding something like an elephant on steroids, is clear, as is Akira Ifukube's pulsing score, which was a groundbreaking soundtrack at the time and is still highly regarded among film music cognoscenti. The extras include a fascinating interview with Ifukube (he originally worked for the Japanese forestry service!), as well as other stars involved with the famous monster, including Haruo Nakajima, who donned the 200-plus-pound Godzilla suit to play the radioactive beast. There are still more featurettes, including one on the ironically named Lucky Dragon Number 5, a fishing vessel that got too close to the Bikini Island experiments, causing its crew to contract radiation sickness and forming the basis for the opening Godzilla scenes.

Godzilla was a groundbreaking movie in its day, so revered that it was dubbed, at extra expense, in an American version that made more money than any foreign film before it. The special effects look a little cheesy in spots (the blown away helicopter is definitely a toy), but that was the point when I first saw it in junior high. We kids had seen George Pal's War of the Worlds and other like-kind genre films that had amazing special effects, and we knew that Toho was using miniatures. But being young and blissfully unaware of the more serious message of the H-bomb subtext, we simply thought it was so cool that a director would build and destroy an entire miniature Tokyo. That cool factor remains, and whether you watch it for its message or just for fun, Godzilla still rocks.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 4 starts at a fishing village as its denizens wonder why the fishing has been so bad. The detail and especially spot-on contrast are of much higher quality than you might expect from a monster flick.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Design for Living"

January 2012

Design for Living1933 Comedy Still Scores Laughs Today

The Criterion Collection 592
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
***
Extras
***1/2

It's a fascinating journey to study censorship throughout the history of cinema. You're liable to find a few surprises, including Ernst Lubitsch's frothy Design for Living, made before stringent codes were placed on Hollywood films. Though it will probably just seem smart and sassy to contemporary viewers, the film broke a fistful of taboos back in 1933. For one, it announced that married people sleep in the same bed. There’s a scene in this film where a man and woman measure a bed in a showroom window and then measure their own chest widths to see if they'll fit. Contrast that with all the '40s and '50s movies where couples, no matter how much in love, slept in twin beds.

Then there's the issue of sex before marriage, which, despite lacking in nudity, Design for Living makes perfectly clear. And finally there's the biggest bomb of all: a ménage à trois! Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht made it all seem so comic and agreeable that you can scarcely find fault, but perhaps that was the problem with censors back in the '30s: they were alarmed that the unions in Design for Living, which flew in the face of commonly accepted social norms, were presented as perfectly normal.

At the beginning of the film, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), an American commercial artist living in France, boards a train to find her two compartment mates, Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper), asleep. Entranced by the two handsome men, she starts to sketch them. When they first wake up, they think she's French, and once it's out of the way that she isn't, both show that they think she's the most desirable woman in France or anywhere else. In order not to spoil the intricate plot for you, suffice it to say that Gilda cannot choose between Tom and George, as she loves them both. Near the end of the film she decides to go the straight and narrow way by marrying her ardent but dull boss, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), but her free spirit prevents it from working. Miriam Hopkins is all sugar and lots of spice as Gilda, and we can easily see why all the guys fall for her. If you've only seen Cooper in westerns, be prepared to see another highly successful facet to his acting. March's crackling intensity keeps things rolling when Hopkins isn't around, which fortunately is not very often.

Lubitsch used varied camera angles and distances to better tell the story (based loosely on a play by Noël Coward), and the video transfer shows these with good focus and contrast and a tolerable level of grain. The print itself has a few slightly damaged frames, and at a few points it goes a little soft, so it's not the best black-and-white release Criterion has ever done, but it's still top-drawer. The mono audio track has been restored, and it's perfectly adequate for all the pithy dialogue -- I didn't miss a word. There's very little else on the soundtrack, just a few random sound effects and some location music.

The extras offer a very good television production of Coward's original play, introduced by the author himself. Also included is a short but memorable vignette, directed by Lubitsch and starring Charles Laughton, that was part of a multi-director 1932 movie, If I Had a Million. You'll also find a screen-specific commentary from film scholar William Paul that dissects several scenes in this film as well as a few in Lubitsch's companion piece, Trouble in Paradise (1932). Other extras include a discussion with screenwriter Joseph McBride that examines Hecht's adaptation of Coward's play, and a booklet with an enthusiastic essay by film critic Kim Morgan, illustrated with wonderfully vivid black-and-white stills from the film.

Design for Living has no nudity or profanity, but it plays smartly as a romantic comedy with unapologetic sex at its core. It has traversed the years well, and it's still entertaining today thanks to its witty script, sure direction, and crackerjack performances.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 4 is set in Tom and George's Paris apartment, which looks something like a modern set for La Bohème. After Gilda arrives, the three take turns flopping on a sofa bed that issues very detailed and realistic clouds of dust. Though the characters pay little attention, I have respiratory issues and I wanted to cough and sneeze. In other words, magnificent detail!

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy"

December 2011

Jurassic Park Ultimate TriologySpielberg’s Dinosaur Classics Look and Sound Spectacular on Blu-ray

Universal 61117081
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
*****
Extras
****1/2

Dinosaurs have always fascinated us. They were a big part of my world as a kid, though at that time we could only see dino skeletons and drawings. In the movies they were usually just lizards with fins, and they seemed atrociously fake. There was Ray Harryhausen, who used stop-motion techniques to great effect, but as meticulous and time consuming as his work was, he couldn't be in charge of every B movie made.

Steven Spielberg no doubt experienced many of these bad movies while retaining his natural curiosity about the huge beasts that were, we're now told, wiped out of existence when a large meteor collided with the Earth. Spielberg wanted his dinosaurs to look real, and since CGI was just picking up in quality, it unlocked many opportunities to present dinosaurs as they lived in the wild. His team did a great job. The special effects in these movies still look impressive, and sometimes awesome, as in the first dinosaur sighting of the original movie.

The film finds a corporation about to open a dinosaur-based theme park on a far-flung island. Unlike other exhibits, this one is stocked with live dinosaurs courtesy of scientists who've figured out how to extract dino DNA and resurrect the extinct reptiles. Dedicated paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, who stars in the first and third films) urges caution, but others think might makes right and that they are the mighty. The dinosaurs quickly prove them wrong, causing catastrophic damage when every failsafe crashes and burns. The second and third movies take up the story but focus more on special effects than on character development. The action sequences are so good, however, that they get away with it.

Many viewers have trashed the transfers of Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy in reviews on Amazon.com, mainly with complaints of a grainy picture. But those criticisms simply aren't true: these fantasy-adventure movies look very fine on Blu-ray. I'd assume those unhappy viewers have their contrast or sharpness controls set too high. The original movie has its own great contrast and excellent shadow detail, and though the first sequel (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) doesn't quite measure up, the third installment (Jurassic Park III), often considered the worst of the movies, has a picture of demonstration caliber, sometimes displaying astonishing detail that adds perceptible depth to almost every scene. The soundtracks for all three movies are as good as it gets. Dialogue is clear and well placed within the sound design, and the surrounds are on most of the time (especially in Jurassic Park III), providing atmospheric sounds that really draw you into the picture. Of course, there are crunching dinosaur sounds that will give your entire sound system an exhaustive workout, including the subwoofer for those T. rex stomps.

The extras are plentiful and generally good. Commentaries, deleted scenes, production featurettes, behind-the-scenes shorts, and theatrical trailers all abound. This would be a good set to have on hand in case you become snowbound this winter, as it can provide hours, maybe days, of enjoyment while your local road crews are digging you out.

Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy lives up to its name on Blu-ray, providing three nights of first-rate entertainment followed by seemingly hours of extras perfect for a rainy or snowy day.

Be sure to watch for: There are hundreds of scenes in these three movies that you could pick as examples of Blu-ray excellence. Some of them are of quite ordinary events. Take chapter 5 of Jurassic Park III for instance. A small airplane sits on a runway that extends into the distance and is bordered on the right by a thick forest. A tattered windsock is in the foreground. There's shadow definition and detail at the bottom of the trees that holds solid into the distance, giving the picture a real feeling of depth. Even with good upsampling, a DVD cannot compare.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

December 2011

Rise of the Planet of the ApesSuperb Acting and Special Effects Make Rise of the Planet of the Apes a Must-See Blu-ray

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment 74987 2
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
****1/2
Extras
****

I was unable to see this latest reboot of the Planet of the Apes series in a theater and had heard so-so press about it. But after experiencing it in my home theater, I have nothing but praise. It's one of the best science-fiction/action films I've seen in a long time. The film is well cast and acted, it's paced just right, and it has state-of-the-art special effects that aid in telling the story rather than being mere eye candy.

Most readers will remember the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, which found astronaut Charlton Heston going forward in time to discover an Earth ruled by apes that talked and behaved just like men. Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes us back to a time long before that to show how the apes started to transform and gain power. A young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco) is desperate to cure his father (John Lithgow), who has Alzheimer's. Experimenting on apes, he isolates a virus that heightens the apes' intelligence. Will's chief chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, goes on a rampage and the research is ended, but Bright Eyes has just given birth to a baby chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and Will takes him home. Will uses a variant of the virus on his father, who regains his memory but still succumbs to his disease. The virus appears to make apes smarter, but it can kill humans.

The rest of the film shows Caesar's increasing intelligence, his rise to leadership, and his marshalling of other apes to present a force that will challenge humans for control of the Earth. The special effects are stunning, and the filmmakers have brought motion capture to a new level. But it's actor Andy Serkis who brings Caesar to emotional life. Though his subtle expressions are fed through the motion-capture process, there's nothing mechanical about his performance. His interpretation of Caesar is what makes this movie so special; it's not unthinkable that he might be nominated for an Oscar. Serkis must be gymnast, stuntman, and actor at the same time, and he accomplishes all with seeming ease in a tour de force performance.

The picture is close to perfect with amazing detail that makes the computerized fur look absolutely real. Whether outdoors or inside, every shot resonates with true color and infallible contrast. The sound supports the picture all the way, with a sweeping, rhythmic score from Patrick Doyle, crisp and clear dialogue, and lots of atmospheric surround.

The extras are fun and enlightening, especially the one on Andy Serkis that shows how he looks in his motion-capture suit while playing Caesar. In fact, using spilt screen and actual shots from the movie, I learned more about motion capture from these the extras than from any others I've seen. Serkis retains his motion-capture suit for several deleted scenes, and there's a wonderful featurette on the music that shows how Patrick Doyle used a most unusual trick to create a dynamic rhythmic sequence. There are two commentary tracks, one from director Rupert Wyatt and one from producers/writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Both are worth your time.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't just another creature movie. It smacks of excellence in every sense and boasts an Oscar-worthy performance from Andy Serkis. The script is tight, the pace is just perfect, and the character development is deep and probing. The Blu-ray edition, which preserves every aspect of the film's quality, won't disappoint.

Be sure to watch for: One of the extras is called The Great Apes. It contains profiles of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans and offers facts and observations that will deepen your understanding of our closest primate relatives.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Lady Vanishes" (1938)

December 2011

The Lady VanishesBritish Hitchcock Thriller a Blu-ray Gem

The Criterion Collection 3
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
***1/2
Sound Quality
***
Extras
***

The Lady Vanishes is one of the last British movies Alfred Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood, and it's considered to be among his best. Part espionage thriller and part romantic comedy, it's a feat that perhaps only Hitchcock could have pulled off. Like many classic films, it involves a train and its passengers, which is always a good formula. Those closed-off compartments (and baggage car) could be hiding anything.

The hidden element in this film is an elderly woman named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who has mysteriously disappeared but must still be on the train. The last person to have seen her is Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a young woman traveling to England for her impending wedding. She convinces a dashing passenger named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to help her, and before you can yell "Look out!" the two are falling in love and getting involved in international skullduggery.

Hitchcock plans his scenes with economy and precision (the set was only 90 feet long!) and gets the most out of his talented cast. The comedy here isn't the roll-in-aisles sort, but if you're familiar with Hitchcock's droll, deliberately stiff introductions to his TV episodes you'll know what to expect. The two characters responsible for the most titters are bachelor-buddies Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford), who hang the success of their lives on being able to get back to England for a special cricket tournament. The pair was so popular with audiences that Wayne and Radford appeared as the same characters in several additional movies, including Crook's Tour, which is included as an extra on this Blu-ray.

Criterion developed a new print for this movie a few years back for a DVD release, and this appears to be the same one. It gains depth from the greater definition that Blu-ray provides, and all those British tweeds look appropriately spiffy, as do the details of the train's interior. But it's the sound that's most improved from the DVD release. The uncompressed mono track easily reproduces all the dialogue and the important train sounds that make us feel like we're "all aboard." This movie is 73 years old, so I imagine this is the best we'll ever see it.

The extras include a 1962 interview with François Truffaut; "Mystery Train," a video essay on the movie and its characters' actions and motives; and a handsome gallery of still photos. The entire film is supplied with a running commentary from Bruce Eder, which is not always screen-specific but contains a staggering amount of information.

The Lady Vanishes is a tidy little thriller that represents Hitchcock at his best. It contains delightful characters put in precarious situations with exciting results, and Criterion has given us an edition that's second to none.

Be sure to watch for: Hitchcock knew that telling the audience a secret before the characters discover it is a great way to heighten suspense. In chapter 18, the villain (a very sinister and suave Paul Lukas) sits across a table from Iris and Gilbert in the dining car. He has ordered poisoned drinks for the hapless duo. When they arrive, Hitchcock emphasizes the attempted poisoning by shooting part of the scene through the glasses. Will the targeted couple pick up the drinks or not? It's a tense moment that’s absolutely Hitchcockian.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"The Debt"

December 2011

The DebtA Suspenseful and Thrilling Espionage Tale 

Universal 62119711
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
****
Extras
*

Espionage thrillers that are both intelligent and exciting aren't too common, but we can now add The Debt to this short list. The film, based on Ha-Hov, a 2007 Israeli movie, explores the wages of sin and deceit using high-level dialogue and, for the most part, superb acting. It's also heavy on action, which occurs in short, intense bursts that resonate like electric shocks.

The always-marvelous Helen Mirren is on hand, and she plays no small part in helping this film achieve excellence. We see her in 1997, playing Rachel Singer, who has just become famous (thanks to a book her daughter wrote) for her past exploits as a Mossad agent. Flash back to 1966 when she was 25 and was partnered with two male agents in East Berlin to capture a suspected Nazi war criminal who tortured and executed thousands of Jews during World War II. Rachel (played in flashback scenes by the immensely talented Jessica Chastain) joins David (a wooden Sam Worthington), and Stephan (Marton Csokas), the team's erstwhile leader.

A love triangle almost develops, but the team's focus on the mission nips it in bud. When their plan goes wrong, the three agents face a choice: botch the mission or invent a story that will make them heroes. The course they take makes for exciting action in 1997, like a poison that's been cooking for 31 years. The shifts in time are easy to follow, and you'll have no trouble believing Chastain as a younger Mirren, as she perfectly mirrors Mirren's mannerisms and attitudes. The two men are a bit of a stretch, but since Rachel's character holds events together, they don't distract from the central conflict.

Universal has brought The Debt to home video with a solid Blu-ray presentation. The film uses muted colors (perhaps to represent the Cold War setting), but they manage to seem lively, rich, and never drab. Shadow detail is good, sometimes at the expense of securing a really solid black, and skin tones are fine. The soundtrack is excellent. Softer sounds, such as dripping water, heighten the suspense, while action sounds, which will call on your subwoofer, have visceral impact and focus. The dialogue, often spoken in whispers, is always perfectly intelligible.

The disappointing extras amount to almost nothing. There are three featurettes that are just publicity fluff, and there's a staid commentary by director John Madden and producer Kris Thykier, but that's it. Universal is counting on the film itself to carry this release, and fortunately it does. Despite the lack of extras, The Debt is still highly recommended.

Be sure to watch for: Chapter 6, in which the team abducts Vogel, is set at a railroad crossover point between East and West Germany. There are a lot of architectural details and shifts in lighting that the Blu-ray transfer handles superbly, just as it nails the sound of speeding trains and, later, crackling gunfire.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Super 8"

November 2011

Super 8Even Overused Lens-Flare Effects Can’t Scuttle This Charming Film

Paramount 14544
Format: Blu-ray, DVD

Overall Enjoyment
****1/2
Picture Quality
****1/2
Sound Quality
****1/2
Extras
***1/2

Super 8 is a monstrously enjoyable film on multiple levels. Part era-defining monster movie, part tribute to Steven Spielberg, the film, directed by J.J Abrams, is ultimately devoted to the art of Super 8 filmmaking.

Back in the day, before every smartphone housed a digital video camera, people used 8mm cameras to document the important events in their lives. After you shot the film, you'd send it off for developing, and a week later you'd be able to relive the captured moment. Many kids latched on to the 8mm, and later the Super 8, for a very different reason. These young artists, bitten by the movie bug, set out to make their own films. Abrams started this way, as did Spielberg, and in an unusually interesting set of extras we learn that Michael Giacchino, composer of Super 8’s super music score, did as well. With Super 8, Abrams pays tribute to all the creative kids who helmed a camera, and he captures the thrill of making those early 8mm films.

The story finds a group of kids filming at a railroad station that becomes rubble after a passing train is derailed by a pickup truck on the tracks, and the plot solidifies Abrams's reputation as a first-rate storyteller. The train in question was transporting an alien (not the cute E.T. kind), which escapes to terrorize the town. Suspense swells as the film slowly reveals the hunted alien -- until the final five minutes, which seem rather unlikely and perhaps a little too "feel good."

The Blu-ray is demonstration caliber in all respects. The picture is sharp as a tack, with items in the background as focused as those in front, but the lens-flare effects that Abrams loves are more objectionable on this Blu-ray than they were in the theater. A lens flare now and then can be effective, but here Abrams goes overboard and the Blu-ray's images are so detailed that they stand out too much. If the overall film wasn't so mesmerizing, they would severely detract; as it is they knock half a star off my rating.

The sound is, to use an overworked but appropriate word, awesome. Surrounds accentuate specific effects, such as falling debris from the train wreck, but they also establish location and atmosphere. The overall effect is totally immersive and helps pull you into the movie. The documentary featurette is much better than average, and you can play the chapters individually or as one long hour-and-a-half film. There's also a set of deleted scenes that are more like scene extensions. The one extra that doesn't work deals with the train crash. It's an interactive piece that's chopped up into small bits that just aren't satisfying. A linear featurette would have been better.

The package includes a DVD and digital copy in addition to the Blu-ray. Overall, this is a Blu-ray to own rather than rent. You'll want to demo that train crash many times to show off your home theater, and you'll catch nuances in the remarkable acting every time. You might even get used to the lens flares. And make sure you sit through the end credits to see the finished Super 8 movie the kids shot from their wild experiences.

Be sure to watch for: By all means, pay close attention to the train crash that occurs early in the film. I've seen a lot of crashes of all types in various movies, but this one set me on edge from beginning to end through its superlative camera work, perfect editing, and a sound design that just can't be beat for impact and clarity. Oscar, anyone?

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com

"Beginners"

November 2011

BeginnersMcGregor and Plummer Shine in One of the Best Films of 2010

Universal 62117654
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
****
Picture Quality
****
Sound Quality
****
Extras
**

Beginners was one of the best films of 2010, but it received rather haphazard theatrical distribution. It didn't play in my local multiplex, and unless you live in a metropolitan area you probably didn't get to see it in a theatre. The plot is simple: Oliver, a late-30s graphic artist (Ewan McGregor) meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a party and begins a relationship — one that, based on his past, is doomed to fail. Oliver's father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has passed away just months before. Hal had come out as a gay man at age 75 and embraced a full and active life with new definitions and parameters. Oliver draws strength from remembering his father's bravery in being a "beginner" to bolster his own newness at a serious relationship.

The basics can't begin to describe the charm of this little film. It has a most unusual structure, using flashbacks and narrated time capsules. In these, Oliver tells the audience what was going on during a certain year while the screen displays a slide show of still images. These sections mesh with the film's overall style and never seem intrusive. Though time jumps back and forth, the editing is so skillful that there's absolutely no confusion. And despite dealing with death, the overall film is quite upbeat and amusing.

McGregor and Plummer deliver Oscar-worthy performances that are subtle and moving. The highest points of the movie are their scenes together, which just barely sidestep sentimentality to seem very realistic. In the spirit of beginnings, Plummer, in his later years, has suddenly emerged as one of the great actors of this age.

The Blu-ray of the movie is excellent. Presented mostly in muted colors, the picture doesn't always pop, but it's clean, well defined, and certainly as good as most average contemporary films. Likewise, the soundtrack isn't spectacular but it's always reliable. Whispering characters are easily heard, and the music fares well, too. The extras are skimpy, consisting only of a director's commentary from Mike Mills and a short production featurette. I would suggest a Criterion edition down the road so that this fine film can offer the extras it merits.

Be sure to watch for: There are a lot of long hallway and street shots in the movie, and they have good depth thanks to Blu-ray's high definition. One at the beginning of chapter 10 shows Oliver and his dog walking down an outside hallway. The definition holds steady as they get farther away.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstagenetwork.com